Seventeen

Eddie was in the hotel room watching television and reading the New York Times when Nikki returned, some time after dark.  She was disheveled, and her shirt was crusty with dried blood.  She was walking stiffly; she looked really tired, and really pissed off.  That was fine.  He was willing to take any abuse she wanted to dish out.  Once he had heard about the hostage situation, he had gotten worried.  The thought of Nikki in there gave him a flutter of concern deep down.  He knew she could take care of herself–she had nearly booted his head off, after all–but the thought of little Poppet in danger was just somehow not right.  “Five hours of hostage drama,” he said lightly, masking the fact that he was really glad to see her.  “Hell of an afternoon, eh?  You hurt?”

She shook her head and sat on her bed.  She was clutching her bag; the straps had broken completely at one end, and she had to hold it with both hands to keep it from spilling open.

“How’d you get so messy?”  The live coverage of the bank robbery was still on, despite the fact that it had ended in a violent shootout half an hour ago.  All of the robbers were dead, apparently.  The SWAT boys had had a grand old time taking them out.  The report had said no hostages were hurt, but seeing Nikki was still the only thing that made him feel better.  He turned the TV off.

“One of them got shot near me.”

“Said on the news they had bulletproof vests.”

“In the face,” Nikki said.  She eased herself down, flat onto her back–usually she flopped–and stared at the ceiling, arms stretched out over her head.

Eddie folded the Times.  “Did you make the deposit?”

“No.”  You bastard, she thought.  You bastard, you bastard, you fat disgusting bastard. She wished she could somehow beam the thought into his brain that she didn’t feel like talking.  “It was kind of disorganized.  I ran out with everybody else.”

“News said police snipers took the hardcases out.  Do these sorts of things happen everywhere you go?”

“Seems like it,” Nikki sighed.

“I knew you’d say that, Poppet.”

“I’ll bet you did.  Don’t call me Poppet.”

“So what, did you fall or something?”

She pushed herself up on her elbows, slowly.  Her back gave a fresh spasm, as if to tell her what Eddie was talking about, but she asked anyway.  “What?”

“You’re in pain,” he said. 

“My back hurts.  I was lying on my face on the floor for five hours.  Not exactly therapeutic.”

“You got a bad back?”

“Ever since I broke it.”

“How the hell did you manage that?”

“I was in a truck.  It crashed.  I went out the window.”

Eddie laughed.  “Shit like this does happen around you a lot, doesn’t it?  If you tell me the story, I’ll rub your back for you.”

Nikki turned her head to the side, looking at him.  “Why would I want your fucking hands on me?”

“Aw, don’t be like that.  I don’t offer backrubs to just anyone.  And I’ve been trained by the best.”

She looked back up at the ceiling.  The anonymous white spackle-patterned hotel room ceiling didn’t cheer her up at all.  “I’m sure you have.”

“You say no, but you really mean yes,” he joked.  He turned in the chair as if to come to the bed, and started rolling up his sleeves.

“I’ll chop your hands off,” she replied, her voice soft and deadly serious.  “First the left and then the right.  And I’ll make you eat them.  I really, really will.  I can’t take any more today, Eddie.”

He didn’t move toward her, thinking about the mini-sword she had, and the tone in her voice that he couldn’t ignore any more.  She was past the point where he could tease her.  It was also a little bit creepy that she didn’t seem the least bit bothered wearing a shirt covered with someone else’s blood, despite her tendency to be a cleanliness-freak.  “Suit yourself.  You want I should find a chiropractor for you?”

“No, I’ll be okay.  I’ll take a bath.”  Nikki sat up painfully and retired to the bathroom.  Eddie heard her run her bath, and all was silent for about an hour.

She came out, damp and smelling of soap, and inspected the strap of her bag.  The leather had frayed from being mended so many times; she’d have to cut the end off and punch new holes for stitches.  She sighed again.  The strap couldn’t get much shorter than it was.  She pulled out the sewing kit and looked at the woefully thin thread she had.

“Fishing line.” Eddie said.

“What?”

“Fishing line will work better.  To fix that,” he said, pointing.  “Want some?”

Nikki’s demeanor softened slightly.  “Okay.”

“I’ll trade you for the story about the truck you got tossed out of.”

She slapped the bedspread with her open hand.  “Can’t you ever just sit in silence?  Jesus Christ.”

“Is it a deal?”

Nikki considered waiting until Eddie had gone to bed, and then just finding the fishing line on her own, if he really had any.  She didn’t like telling him things about herself.  The only reason she did was because he was going to die anyway.  She dumped her things out of the damaged bag and started sorting them.  “Okay,” she said finally.  “What do you want to know?”

“Well, I know the what:  you were in a car crash.  Now I want to know the who, when, where, why, and how.  Just like the newspaper guys would.”

“The newspaper guys already know,” Nikki said.

“It made the news?  That’s even more interesting.  So go on.  Who?”

“Me and seven other kids.  All of them died except me.”

Something like sympathy crossed Eddie’s face, faintly.  Very faintly.  He didn’t make a joke.  “When?”

He was talking like Taiisha, and she didn’t like that.  “Three years ago, I guess.  It was in Michigan,” she added before he could ask where.

“That why you left?”

“No.”  She thought about it.  “No, it wasn’t,” she repeated.

Eddie had opened his toolbox, taking out the phone he’d modified for her and a spool of fishing line.  “That leaves why and how.  How is easier.”

Nikki laughed–one of her amused sighs, actually–and said, “The driver was drunk out of his skull.  We all were.  We ran off a snowy road in the middle of the night and crashed and rolled the truck.  No one even found us until six the next morning.”

“And you got away with a broken back.”

“It wasn’t completely broken, I guess.  I remember hearing it crack when I hit the ground, but that’s probably my imagination.  I was paralyzed from the waist down for two weeks and had PT for two months.”

“You bounced back from it pretty well.  Did it scare you?”

Nikki shrugged, fingering the frayed end of her bag strap.  “I don’t know.  I was in shock.  Everybody I knew at that school was in that truck. I didn’t think about maybe being in a wheelchair.  I didn’t care.”  She looked at Eddie, surprised to see that he was still paying attention.

He handed her the fishing line.  “Now for the hard one.  Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why were you there?  Why did you get in the truck with a drunk driver at the wheel?”  He stopped himself, but he wanted to yell, My God, girl, what were you thinking?  He felt parental, which combined with his earlier concerns, was distinctly weird.  “Sorry.  I’m not trying to bust your chops.  I’m sure you’ve done that for yourself already.  Forget that question.”

Nikki answered anyway.  “I wanted a group to belong to, Eddie.  That’s all.  It was high school.  Who wants to be alone, then?  I mean, all the time.  I was the weird kid, I was the new kid, and so when someone finally acted like they wanted me around and wanted to know about me, I just went…” she trailed off, embarrassed.  She was in the same situation now, wasn’t she?

Seventeen

Lexi hadn’t slept under the covers of her bed since Ren had died.  She couldn’t bear being under there alone, couldn’t sleep like that.  When it got too cold to lie on top of the blankets, she grabbed one side or the other and folded them over herself.  The scratchy top surface of the duvet didn’t evoke the same depth-charge explosion of loneliness and insomnia.  She’d tried sleeping with the blanket upside down, but her subconscious wasn’t fooled.

It was like this; when Ren had died, this empty space had opened up inside of her, a great howling whirling vortex of nothing.  It was always there, swirling around threatening to suck the rest of her in, threatening to tear her to pieces.  She’d been over and over the similes; it was a tornado in her head, it was a hole in some massive psychospiritual dam that was leading slowly, inevitably to its collapse, it was a drain she was swirling around and around, but never going down.  It was just a void.  Some days she barely noticed it, thanks to the pink clouds.  This morning she had nothing to do but stare into herself, into that primal scream frozen in time.  It seemed to get larger, as if it would swallow her whole if she didn’t at least do something, find some taskie or busywork or some other sort of armor.  But there wasn’t any armor.  There was nothing to do but move.

So when she awoke, early, wrapped up in a duvet taco, she threw the covers off and started to run.  Lexi didn’t have anywhere to run to, so she just charged out of her room and down the stairs and into the library, where she surprised Teague and Amy-Ann who were stalking some piece of fluff and scattered when she burst into the room.  Lexi went right past them.  Moving wouldn’t make the storm in her head go away, but if she could go the same speed it would cancel out, and she’d feel better.  There were a lot of thoughts behind the storm, and she wanted to see them.  She needed to move without stopping, for as long as it would take to bring her back off of the edge.  Through the TV room, then down the back hall and into the kitchen, where Dr. Zheng was sitting at the table.  Lexi paid him no mind, turning, turning, grabbing the jamb of the secret staircase to her room and pounding up it until she was back where she started. 

When she jumped across the bed she nearly stepped on Malice, who barely moved, and she kept going out into the hall again.  She was on the edge of that vortex now, she was looking into it and couldn’t see anything on the other side, and when she couldn’t see anything on the other side she wanted very much to die.  Lexi didn’t want to kill herself, just to die–and maybe that was the only way to fill the void.  She didn’t like feeling that way, so she kept running, to come down from that frightening boundary, to get back to where she could see the rest of herself on the other side of the crater Ren had left.  A drive would have helped, would have been even more motion, but Dr. Zheng had made sure she couldn’t get the keys to his rental.

This time she ran down the stairs to the first landing and then up the other side, to the other half of the house.  There were no stairways to the first floor from here, but there was the attic.  Lexi jumped for the cord dangling in the middle of the hallway, pulling the trap door down with her weight, and she grabbed the stairs and unfolded them, scrambling up the old wood as if she were being chased by demons.  She was in the attic in seconds, able to run the length of the house if she wanted to, without stopping.  And she did.  The attic had a peaked roof, like many of them this age did, but it had been partly finished, with a floor and some insulation, and she had discovered stairways into her room and two others as well, hidden under their own little trap doors.  They led into the closets.

Lexi ran from one end of the attic to the other and back again twice, three times, and then jumped up on a garment box full of pillows and linen and turned it over.  Pillows scattered in a silent, bouncing wave.  She could see down into the vortex if she looked inside now, could see all the way down for the first time, and coiled at the bottom was a snake made of anger, a black scaly thing that took up the entire space with its coils.  She had subconsciously known it was there, somewhere back in her pink fog, had known that it had been there for years, even before Ren had died, maybe since her father had died, but it rarely stirred, rarely had the energy.  Now it was restless, feeding on her hurt.  She needed something to weigh it down, something to channel its energy into because if it got strong enough to come up out of that vortex she wasn’t sure if it would destroy her or whatever else was convenient.

It was calm now.  She could feel the snake down there, but it wasn’t moving.  Lexi didn’t want a pill this morning, needed something else to keep her from going round the vortex, and there was something in her mind, something she’d dreamed about.  The basement, that was it.  Something in the basement.  Of course, with all the snow, she wouldn’t be able to get into the basement; the only door was outside, and it would be buried.

No, that wasn’t right either, was it?  Was it?  Lexi couldn’t remember.  There was some bogle chattering in the back of her mind that she had to get into the basement still.  She scanned the attic, all of the shelves part-full of things she and Ren had collected.  Too much of it was in boxes; she needed to get it all out.  Later, though.  On the way downstairs, she ran her fingers over Ren’s saxophone, and took a moment to take her compound bow out of its case.  The red fiberglass made her smile.  It was a nice bow.  She and Ren had both gotten them to play with, and then entered several four-by-four obstacle course contests which included canoe and target shooting stages, just for an excuse to use them.  Ren had been a horrible shot; she was somewhat better.  Funny thing was, with guns they were the opposite; she could barely hit a target with one of Ren’s pistols.  Practice was the key, of course, but Ren’s guns were the first things Ian had taken out of the house–thank you, suicide watch happy-squad.  Shooting the bow would be nice; that was a thing that would keep her occupied.  She drew it a few times, testing her somewhat less-than-optimal strength.  Exercise; she needed that, too.

But first, the basement.  Actually it could prove to be exercise on its own.  She took the attic staircase that led into her closet, and from there slipped down the secret staircase to the kitchen, walking where she knew the creaks weren’t.  There was some vague memory that maybe the ghosts had been showing her both hidden passages and how to avoid the creaks, but she couldn’t remember exactly.  She went into the TV room, thinking of the basement.  There was a snow shovel on the porch, she knew, so she could dig a path if she had to.  But there was something else…there was cold air blowing across her ankles, that’s what it was.  There weren’t any windows that low, so the air was coming from someplace.  The house had drafts, but this wasn’t one of the regular ones.

She wiggled her toes in it and followed the funny little breeze to the wall.  Knowing why and not knowing why at the same time, she pushed on the wall, and a door popped open.  Had she known there was a door here?  Of course she hadn’t.  There was something vaguely familiar about it. 

Behind the door was a hall with mirrors for walls, ceiling, and floor, and beyond that a staircase leading into–surprise!–the basement.  It came down in a little wine cellar, which she and Ren hadn’t explored when they’d been in the basement prior to buying the house, and thus they hadn’t known there were inside stairs at all.  But it was a good thing to know.

The basement’s dirt floor was frozen solid.  Lexi got a funny prickle in her toes and a shiver up her back as she walked on it, and imagined that there were murder victims buried underneath her floor.  The thought made her smile without managing to be truly creepy.

The basement itself was strange; she and Ren had been down there.  The floor was still dirt, but the ceiling had been finished, with lath and light fixtures.  It was divided into rooms, but the walls themselves were deteriorating rapidly.  She could probably knock most of them down with some healthy body blows.  There were metal house-jacks in place in a few spots, where it looked like structural bits were getting weakened.  Time to pour some concrete, Lexi thought.  Come summer, anyway.  The thought of serious home improvement made her smile, too.

Closer to the ramp that led up to a large door going outside were more crates, a wall of four by five by nine-foot wooden blocks.  Forty of them, to be exact.  They were stacked two high, almost reaching the ceiling, and they masked the enormous basement’s size.  They contained Crane-Packard stuff.  Yes, of course, that was why she’d come down here.  She had the parts to build at least twenty-six more of the V8-powered sports cars.  There were twenty-four Crane-Packards built, and these were the bits for their brothers and sisters, everything needed to build them except the frames, which were at the warehouse.  They hadn’t even gotten halfway through the supplies.  Lexi decided that she ought to build at least one more.  Ren would like that.  She promptly forgot about the cold that was numbing her feet through her socks, and about breakfast.

There was a crowbar on the dirty floor, where it had been dropped who knew how many months ago.  She picked it up–it was a cool, ultralight titanium crowbar that Ren had ordered through some catalog.  He had always liked silly things like that.  Somewhere, she had an umbrella with vent on top, to prevent it from blowing inside out, from the same catalog.  Lexi pried the side of the crate closest to her open, and saw naked engine shortblocks neatly packed in wood and sawdust, and smiled.  “Hel-LO, nurse,” she said.